Columnist

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Your Wednesday article that Metrorail is considering a cut in weekend service really shook me up. That management is not fit to draw a salary.

On Saturday, March 19, I had occasion to use the Orange Line from Metro Center to Ballston. The service was shut between East Falls Church and West Falls Church for track work. I knew that.

I originated my trip at Union Station. The Red Line was very full, but no problem.

The Orange Line was grossly overloaded. [A train] came along at about 4:15 p.m. It was worse than rush hour. In the car I was in, two women with tiny babies had to stand holding them. I had to stand, but a young woman offered me her seat. I had been sitting at a meeting so I told her to keep it, “thank you.”

I counted. A six-car train had 960 people on it. A rush-hour load should not exceed 720. When I got home, I fired off a protest to [Metro General Manager] Richard Sarles asking for correction “next time.”

I got a letter back from a schedule man, explaining they had cut the service to every 20 minutes, so I should not be concerned. It was just for the day.

Why should I not be concerned? Not just about the overloading, but also the bus connections. My bus line is hourly on Saturday. How could I make connections?

That is not what we pay high fares and taxes for. Any decent management would provide a seat for all off-peak passengers, and 6 square feet per peak passenger.

Metro’s board of directors is supposed to set policy. Well, do it. A seat for all under normal off-peak conditions, and 6 square feet per passenger at peak hours. Keep the schedule to sustain bus connections. An 18-minute headway cannot connect conveniently with hourly or half-hourly bus service.

— Ed Tennyson, Vienna

Tennyson, a consulting transportation engineer and former deputy secretary of transportation for Pennsylvania, has a history of speaking plainly when he thinks people — including me — have missed something basic. He’s right to question Metro’s thinking.

Last week, the Metro board signed off on holding public hearings in May on a cost-cutting measure that could increase the gaps between trains from 12 minutes to 18 minutes during the day on Saturdays and from 15 minutes to 20 minutes on Sundays. After 9:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, the gap would widen to 25 minutes.

This isn’t budget balancing. This is a dirty trick on the riders.

The proposed operating budget for the fiscal year that starts in July is $1.466 billion. The net savings from slashing weekend train service would be about $6.6 million.

Find it.

Don’t tell riders this weekend service cut is a serious proposal. To do so is to say the riders are just so many cattle to funnel through chutes into pens for an amount that’s less than half a percent of the budget.

And don’t put them through public hearings where they’re expected to show up and say how much they need Metro and how much they’d miss the weekend service. Don’t use them as leverage with the local jurisdictions that subsidize the transit authority so those jurisdictions will feel pressured into increasing their payments.

Just find it.

Find it like Gov. Robert F. McDonnell found the money to reopen Virginia’s highway rest areas after the previous administration made the bad decision to shut them, as though there was no other option.

Find it like any responsible public panel does when it puts the core service at the top of its agenda.

If the board members want to have town hall meetings with the riders, fine. That can be done without the sound and fury we’ve come to associate with Metro’s annual lurch into the next budget.

Last year was different. Faced with a huge budget gap, Metro board members seemed genuinely unsure of the best solution. They went to riders with lengthy menus of potential fare increases and service cuts. That may have been too much to absorb. Some major policy issues, like imposing the “peak-of-the-peak” surcharge, didn’t get the thorough discussion they deserved. But something had to be done, and it turned out to be the fare increases.

Since the board has decided that fare increases are off the table this year, the public hearings will ask Metrorail riders only for comments on the proposed service cut.

Make a wild guess on what they’ll say. My guess is the board hears Ed Tennyson times a hundred.

And it’s not up to the riders to discover the money necessary to maintain a decent level of service.

So what’s the real point of this exercise?

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.